JACKSON, Miss. – A new proposal seeks a statewide election on removing the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi flag. But it could be years before the issue gets on the ballot, and there's no guarantee voters would accept it.
State officials said Friday that a resident of the capital city of Jackson filed paperwork for a ballot initiative that would erase all references to the Confederacy from the flag. The emblem — a blue X with 13 white stars, over a red field — has been on Mississippi's flag since 1894, and voters chose to keep it in 2001. But the massacre of nine black worshippers in June at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, has renewed debate about the public display of Confederate symbols.
"It is exciting to know that we are one step closer to addressing this issue once and for all," said initiative sponsor Sharon Brown, who described herself as a civil rights advocate in a statement.
Brown did not immediately return calls for comment Friday. It could be days or weeks before she could begin gathering signatures. Even if enough people sign petitions, the earliest her proposal could be on the ballot is 2018 because the state's initiative process is complicated.
Critics say the Mississippi flag is a divisive reminder of slavery and segregation and doesn't represent a state where 38 percent of the 2.9 million population is black. Supporters say they see the Confederate emblem as a symbol of history and heritage. South Carolina lawmakers voted in July to take down the Confederate battle flag from a monument in front of their Statehouse after the mass shooting in Charleston. The suspect, who is white, had posed with a rebel flag in photos posted online before the attack.
A woman who works in Biloxi, Mississippi, at Beauvoir, the final home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, filed an initiative proposal several weeks ago to keep the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag, but she abandoned it after she said the attorney general had written a confusing ballot title. Beauvoir administrator Greg Stewart said another initiative to keep the flag will be filed.
Any initiative approved by Mississippi voters would be an amendment to the state constitution.
Days after the South Carolina church shooting, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn became the first high-profile Republican elected official to say Mississippi should remove the Confederate battle emblem from its flag. Several Mississippi cities and some counties have stopped displaying the state flag on public property, saying the symbol is divisive. There's no guarantee that legislators will address the sensitive issue when they next convene in January.
Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, have said voters should have the final say in a flag design.
Although the Confederate emblem has been on the Mississippi flag since the late 19th century, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that flag had lacked official status since 1906, when Mississippi laws were updated and the flag design was not described in statute.
Legislators decided in 2001 to put the flag up for a statewide vote. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, voters chose to keep the design rather than replace the Confederate symbol with an alternative proposal with circles of 20 stars to represent Mississippi's status as the 20th state. That vote put the flag design into state law, but not into the constitution.